Christian Conversion & Popular Religion in Early Medieval Ireland


Review of Taboos and penitence: Christian conversion and popular religion in early medieval Ireland, by Elaine Cristine dos Santos Pereira Farrell. 

The introduction of a new religion is a defining moment in the history of any society. The influence exerted by the new religion will shape the structure, culture, and customs of the society in question. On the other hand, the norms of this society may equally produce a distinctive regional variant of the religion. This interrelation is what characterizes, in the definition of the author of the present thesis, a “popular religion”.

Analysing the early phase in the formation of such a popular religion is a highly rewarding, but also extremely difficult undertaking, as the levels and directions of influence are rarely obvious. If the new religion also introduced script to the respective society (as it is, broadly speaking, the case with Christianity in the medieval period), the limited number of sources available further complicates such a study, as does the fact that the earliest documents produced often only reflect the religious perspective, especially if the language of writing introduced was not the vernacular of that society. For these reasons (if no others), studying the formation of popular religion in the middle ages appears almost impossible. There are, however, geographic exceptions, the most noteworthy being Ireland. Here, the body of religious literature was matched by an equally impressive corpus of secular law tracts, which makes early medieval Ireland a fruitful field for the study of the formation of popular religion.

Analysing these early medieval Irish texts and reviewing their modern interpretations has its own challenges, not least the handling of languages. A good command of Latin, Old Irish, French, German, Italian, English (obviously), and now also Portuguese (due to the author of this thesis and others) is paramount, and Pereira Farrell handles these ably. The benefits of such studies, on the other hand, are immense, as they provide a unique insight into society as a whole, not only its top-most stratum. This anthropological approach produces important results for cultural history, and this is where Pereira Farrell places her study.

How, then, are we to approach popular religion? Pereira Farrell’s main focus is on one specific genre of texts, the penitentials. These are principally catalogues of violations against Christian norms and the “penance” to be imposed to rectify such misbehavior. Early medieval Ireland (here sixth to eighth centuries) has a rich tradition of such texts, and Pereira Farrell’s thesis is, in fact, the first full scale study of the entire body of “Irish penitentials”. After an introductory chapter outlining the historiographical context and aims of her study, Pereira Farrell’s work is basically divided into two halves. First, she discusses the penitentials underlying her analysis: 1. “Decrees of the Synod of North Britain”, “Grove of Victory”, “Excerpts from a Book of David”, “Preface of Gildas on Penance” (these may be termed the British precursors); 2. and 3. “Penitentials of Finnian and Columbanus”; 4. Paenitentiale Ambrosianum; 5. “Penitential of Cummean”; 6. and 7. “First and Second Synod of St Patrick”; 8. “Irish Canons”; 9. “Three Irish Canons”; 10. “Welsh Canons”; 11. “Canons of Adomnán”; 12. “Bigotian Penitential”; 13. “Old Irish Penitential”; 14. “Old Irish Table of Penitential Commutations”. Each of these is introduced according to manuscript transmission, description of content, authorship and date, and, most importantly for the present study, a quantification of these documents according to well-defined categories such as sexuality, theft, etc. These statistics are backed up by volume 2 of the thesis, which provides a neat overview in suggestive charts. They form the backbone of the study, as the principal method applied is the quantification of penance, i.e. the more often a certain issue is raised, the more prominent it appears to have featured in the respective society. The first half of the study is rounded off by a more general discussion of the sources underlying these texts, their relation to the Irish secular laws produced at the same time, their audience and functions in pastoral care. The second half then presents the analysis proper. Here, the approach is twofold. First, the statistical evaluation of the penitentials has identified two major themes, sexuality and regulations on food and drink; these are carefully compared to the information given in the legal tracts. Thus, the starting point here is the religious perspective, which is then checked against secular data. Second, this approach is reversed by a thorough analysis of certain secular institutions (oath-swearing, kingship, and díberg) and their reflection in penitential literature. The thesis is concluded by a brief summary of its results and an extensive bibliography.

Particularly the second part of the thesis produced some very interesting results which help our understanding of early medieval Irish society. First, Pereira Farrell proves that Christian norms influenced the customs and behavior of at least the higher ranks of Irish society, best illustrated in the section on sexuality (see especially pp. 121-125). Second, there was considerable secular influence on Irish Christianity; two aspects may suffice here to illustrate this: The degree of consanguinity in marriage was a major concern for any medieval society and it appears to have been renegotiate wherever Christianity met establish societal norms; in the Irish case, specific laws of inheritance made a low degree of consanguinity particularly desirable, so that property would not be alienated from the core family; the result was a degree of four generations, the lowest in Europe (pp. 134-140). Another good example is the fact that the Mosaic law prohibiting the consumption of pork could not be upheld in Ireland, as pigs were an essential part of the Irish economy and diet (pp. 163-166). Third, there were obviously areas of shared interest between the secular and the ecclesiastical norm-makers, such as the binding character of oaths (pp. 181-185); likewise, influence may have been mutual, as in the Irish concept / ideal of kingship, where Christian elements found their way into secular literature and vice versa (pp. 186-195). Classification according to these three categories is, however, obviously not always possible and especially the “inbetween” cases provide plenty of food for further thought. Again, aspects of food consumption and sexuality may provide appropriate examples: Food restrictions could serve the purpose of creating both religious (Christian vs pagan) or social identities, and the direction of influence (if any existed) is often impossible to determine (cf. especially pp. 177-180). Concerning sexuality, Christian theology considered lust a capital vice and sexual discourse acceptable only for procreation, while a society had likewise a fundamental interest in procreation and would therefore condemn sexual practices which did not serve that purpose.

With this thesis, Pereira Farrell has provided a model of how to approach “popular religion” in medieval European societies, she has pushed the body of penitential literature into the focus of Irish medievalists, and she has opened up avenues for further research in early medieval Irish society. It is very much hoped that this thesis will appear in print soon.

Immo Warntjes
School of History and Anthropology
Queen’s University Belfast

Primary Sources

British precursor Penitentials including:
“Decrees of the Synod of North Britain”
“Preface of Gildas on Penance”
Irish Penitentials including:
Paenitentiale Ambrosianum
“First and Second Synod of St Patrick”
“Bigotian Penitential”
“Old Irish Penitential”

Dissertation Information
University College Dublin. 2012. 2 vols. xi + 236 + 138 pp. Primary Advisor: Elva Johnston.

Image: Word cloud by Author.

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